A federal judge in Arkansas granted summary judgment for ConAgra Foods in a collective action brought by a group of departmental Team Leaders who alleged ConAgra misclassified them as exempt and denied them overtime pay in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act.  In Garrison v. ConAgra Foods, the court determined that the Team Leaders’ job duties satisfied the four-part test for the FLSA’s “executive exemption,” including the requirement that the employer gave their recommendations regarding the advancement and demotion of subordinate employees “particular weight.”

ConAgra operated a frozen food production facility in Russellville, Arkansas that employed approximately 1,250 employees of whom approximately 90 were salaried.  The salaried class included the company’s “Team Leaders” who were classified as exempt from state and federal overtime and minimum wage requirements and were tasked with managing hourly employees in various departments, including production, sanitation and maintenance.  ConAgra paid the Team Leaders between $46,000 and $61,000 annually and made them responsible for monitoring employees in their departments and identifying poor performance and rule violations.

One of those Team Leaders filed an action against ConAgra in the Eastern District of Arkansas alleging that the company misclassified her and other Team Leaders as exempt and failed to pay them overtime for hours worked in excess of 40 per week as required under the FLSA and state law.  The Court granted Garrison’s motion for conditional class certification under FLSA and several other ConAgra Team Leaders opted-into the lawsuit (and she also dropped the state law claims).  ConAgra ultimately moved for summary judgment, arguing that the Team Leaders were not entitled to overtime pay because they met the salary and duties requirements for the FLSA’s executive exemption.

Under the FLSA’s regulations, employees are exempt executives if: (1) they are compensated on a salary basis of not less than $455 per week; (2) their primary duties are management of the enterprise or a customarily recognized department; (3) they customarily and regularly direct the work of two or more other employees; and (4) they have the authority to hire or fire other employees or their suggestions regarding the hiring, firing, advancement, promotion or other changes in status of other employees are given particular weight.  The plaintiffs conceded that the regulation’s first three elements were met, but argued that they lacked sufficient authority over the job status of other employees to satisfy the fourth requirement.

The court disagreed, noting that although the Team Leaders did not have the authority to unilaterally hire, fire, promote, demote or transfer the hourly workers they supervised, they were the individuals most directly involved in monitoring and assessing those workers’ performance and provided critical input for management decisions regarding the workers’ future status with the company.  In a broad variety of personnel decisions — discharge and retention of probationary employees, promotions and demotions, temporary reassignments, scheduling of hourly employees and employee discipline — the court concluded that the Team Leaders’ recommendations were given “particular weight.”  Accordingly, the court held that the plaintiffs were employed in a bona fide executive capacity and granted ConAgra’s motion for summary judgment.

Perhaps illustrating the complexity of applying the FLSA’s “white collar” exemptions, the court had the benefit of being able to narrow its focus to the single issue of whether the Team Leaders’ recommendations concerning their subordinates’ employment conditions were given particular weight, yet still the decision required a careful sifting through detailed evidence and competing affidavits to determine the true nature of work assignments, duties and reporting relationships.  While the classification of some employees as exempt executive, administrative or professional workers is straightforward, the Department of Labor’s aggressive stance on employee misclassification and the truly staggering judgments occasionally awarded in FLSA class actions should remind employers that exempt job classifications should be carefully determined and periodically reviewed.